In Itami, Hyogo (near Osaka), a group of scholars of Chinese arts gathered in the early 19th century to discuss recent styles in the art of miniature trees. Their version of these, which had been previously called “Bunjin Ueki,” “Bunjin Hachiue,” or other terms, were renamed “bonsai” (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term penzai). This term had the connotation of a shallower container in which the Japanese could now more successfully style small trees. The term “bonsai,” however, would not become regularly used in describing their dwarf potted trees for nearly a century. Many others terms and compositions adopted by this group were derived from Kai-shi-en Gaden, the Japanese version of Jieziyuan Huazhuan.
In 1829, a significant book that first established classical bonsai art, Somoku Kinyo Shu (A Colorful Collection of Trees and Plants/Collection of tree leaves), was published. It includes the basic criteria for the ideal form of the classical pine bonsai, in detail and with illustrations. That same year, small tako-tsuki (octopus-styled) trees with long, wavy-branches began to be offered by a grower in Asakusa Park, a north-eastern Edo suburb. Within 20 years that neighborhood became crowded with nurseries selling bonsai. The three-volume Kinsei-Jufu, possibly the first catalog of bonsai, tools, and pots, dates from 1833.
Numerous artists of the 19th century depicted dwarf potted trees in woodblock prints, including Yoshishige (who pictured each of the fifty-three classic stations of the Tokaido (road) as miniature landscape) and Kunisada (who included mostlyhachi-no-ki in some four dozen prints). The earliest known photograph from Japan depicting a dwarf potted tree dates from c. 1861 by Pierre Rossier.
On October 13, 1868, the Meiji Emperor moved to his new capital in Tokyo. Bonsai were displayed both inside and outside Meiji Palace, where they have since remained important in affairs of the Palace. Bonsai placed in the grand setting of the Imperial Palace had to be “Giant Bonsai,” large enough to fill the grand space. The Meiji Emperor encouraged interest in bonsai. Government officials who did not appreciate bonsai fell out of favor. Soon all members of the ministry had bonsai whether they liked the tradition or not. Prince Itoh was an exception: Any bonsai that the emperor gave him were then passed to Kijoji Itoh. Kijoji Itoh was a statesman of great influence behind the scenes, and a noted bonsai collector who conducted research and experiments on these bonsai.
Bonsai shaping aesthetics and techniques were becoming more sophisticated. By the late 1860s, thick combed and wetted hemp fibers were used to roughly shape the trunk and branches of miniature trees by pulling and tying them. The process was tedious and bothersome, and the final product was unsightly. Tips of branches would only be opened flat. Long, wavy-branched tako (octopus)-style trees were mass-produced and designed in the [renamed capital] Tokyo for the increasing foreign trade, while the more subtle and delicate bunjin-style trees designed in Kyoto and Osaka were for use in Japan. Tokyo preferred big trunks out of proportion and did not approve of Kyoto’s finely-designed slender trunks. (This cultural rivalry would continue for a century.)
Pots exported from China between 1816 and 1911 (especially the late 19th century) were called Nakawatari (middle-crossing) or Chuwatari, shallow rectangular or oval stoneware with carved feet and drainage holes. Unglazed pots of this type were used at ancestral shrines and treasured by the Chinese. After the mid-century, certain Japanese antiquities dealers imported them and instant popular approval for this type of container for bonsai created a huge demand. As a consequence, orders came from Japan to Yixing pottery centers specifically to make bonsai pots.
Through the later 19th century, Japanese participation in various international exhibitions introduced many in the U.S. and Europe to dwarf potted trees. Specimens from the displays went into Western hands following the closing of the fairs. Japanese immigrants to the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii Territory brought plants and cultivation experience with them. Export nurseries, the most notable one being the Yokohama Gardeners Association, provided increasingly good quality dwarf potted trees for Americans and Europeans — even if the buyers did not have enough information or experience to actually keep the trees alive long-term.
An Artistic Bonsai Concours was held in Tokyo in 1892 followed by the publication of a three-volume commemorative picture book. This demonstrated a new tendency to see bonsai as an independent art form. In 1903, the Tokyo association Jurakukai held showings of bonsai and ikebana at two Japanese-style restaurants. Three years later, Bonsai Gaho (till c.1913), became, it is presumed, the first monthly magazine on the subject. By 1907, “on the outskirts of Tokio [dwarf] tree artists have formed a little colony of from twenty to thirty houses, and from this centre their work finds its way to all parts of the world.” “Its secrets are handed down from father to son in a few families, and are guarded with scrupulous care.”